14 January 2013

The road to Kings of the Gym

Playwright Dave Armstrong talks about the origins of his new play, set in a school gymnasium, Kings of the Gym.

The initial idea for Kings of the Gym probably occurred in the mid-1970s in the gymnasium of my local secondary school. I remember back then that most gymnasiums in co-ed schools were like little man-caves – oases of testosterone where the PE teachers, who were usually male, ruled the roost. In their striped tracksuit trousers, with the ever-present whistles around their necks, these teachers would command us to go on long cross-country runs and play all sorts of games, which were highly competitive and very physical. Most of us enjoyed them but heaven help you if you were overweight, bookish or both. Liberal English, drama and art teachers wouldn’t go near the school gymnasium, preferring the coffee plungers, literary magazines and pottery mugs of the staff room.

Though as a breed, PE teachers seemed to be very different from other teachers, I enjoyed their company immensely. They were almost all uniformly contemptuous of modern, progressive education and perhaps therein lay their appeal. After a day of interactive learning I quite enjoyed playing a highly physical and competitive game of now-forbidden bull-rush in the gym. What interested me is that my liberal teachers, whom I really liked and respected, couldn’t believe that I enjoyed spending time in the company of the ‘Neanderthals’ in the PE department. It was true that these PE teachers could be boorish and insensitive at times, very like Laurie in the play, but I also knew that these kings of the gym really liked kids. And it’s very hard to dislike someone who likes you.

But Kings of the Gym is not really about PE teachers. The gym is merely the setting – that got me thinking about a variety of things. One was that a scummy, dirty gym of a tawdry, failing, low-decile school would be a really challenging place in which to set a romantic comedy.

But as well as being a gym rom-com, Kings of the Gym also looks at a number of issues, not just the obvious ones to do with politics and education, but also wider human issues such as tolerance.
We all think we are tolerant, but real tolerance is another issue altogether. As I was writing this play, a number of social and religious groups such as Destiny Church, Family First and Sensible Sentencing hit the headlines. Some of the members of these groups are highly intolerant, especially of gay rights groups, liberals, prisoners, schoolteachers and judges, to name a few. But I also noticed a growing intolerance amongst people like me to Christians and other conservative groups.

What would happen if people from these opposing groups found themselves all in the same place, say in a school gymnasium? It was then that I realised that even though only one of the four characters in Kings of the Gym is religious, this play is really about a battle for the soul. Each character seems to want every other character to think like them and believe what they believe – and are all prepared to fight to get their way. I found this battle both intriguing and at times very funny.

So how do I describe this battle for the soul set in that most unlikely colosseum – a school gymnasium? Kings of the Gym is definitely a comedy, though perhaps less of a farce than my last play at Circa, The Motor Camp. It features four good-natured, intelligent characters who are fun to be with. Luckily, Kings of the Gym is performed by four good-natured, intelligent actors who are fun to be with, so rehearsals, helmed by my old friend and colleague Danny Mulheron, have been a blast. We were also in the same PE class at school so have had a lot of fun recalling some of the more outrageous events that happened in our run-down, tawdry little school gym.

Kings of the Gym will make you laugh and no doubt rekindle some memories of stubby shorts,  tracksuit trousers, and  rompers in the school gym. But hopefully it will also get you thinking about some of the issues that are of importance in New Zealand today.

Kings of the Gym opens on Saturday, 19 January, with $25 ticket specials for the Preview on Friday, 18 January and the matinee on Sunday, 20 January. To book tickets, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

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